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Putin Compounds His Bad Decisions

The partial mobilization and annexations he ordered will make his life harder, not easier.
September 30, 2022
Putin Compounds His Bad Decisions
Reservists drafted during the partial mobilisation attend a departure ceremony in Sevastopol, Crimea, on September 27, 2022. - Russian President Vladimir Putin announced on September 21 a mobilisation of hundreds of thousands of Russian men to bolster Moscow's army in Ukraine, sparking demonstrations and an exodus of men abroad. (Photo by STRINGER / AFP) (Photo by STRINGER/AFP via Getty Images)

Vladimir Putin’s string of disastrous decisions in 2022 isn’t over yet. His orders to mobilize hundreds of thousands of Russian servicemembers—possibly more than a million—and to hold phony referendums in partly occupied portions of Ukraine demonstrate that he just doesn’t know when to quit.

These terrible moves compound a series of miscalculations and catastrophic choices that began with his absurd justifications for reinvading Ukraine on February 24. Putin grossly underestimated Ukrainians’ ability and determination to fight and defend their land and freedom, misread the West by assuming it wouldn’t unite around sanctions or provide assistance to Ukraine, and overestimated his own military’s capabilities.

The West should maintain vigorous support for Ukraine to win this war, unambiguously reject the referendums, and ignore all suggestions that Putin needs or deserves help out of this quagmire of his own making.

Putin’s previous reluctance to order a mobilization seemed based on concern about how the Russian population would react. With his “special military operation” in even worse shape now than in the spring, thanks to Ukraine’s successful offensives in the Kharkiv region and the south, many Russians don’t want to be sent to the front as cannon fodder. Recent estimates indicate some 80,000 Russians have been killed and wounded in seven months of fighting.

Putin is either killing off or driving away part of a generation of young Russian men and alienating other parts of society. In Dagestan, a poor Muslim region in the Russian Caucasus that already has borne a disproportionate share of losses in the war, protests have erupted against Putin’s decision to send even more of its citizens to fight and die for a losing cause. On the day Putin announced the mobilization, thousands of Russians turned out on the streets across the country and many others fled to neighboring states like Georgia, Turkey, and Kazakhstan.

It will take months before Putin’s mobilization might make a difference on the ground militarily, and by then it could be too late. A complete Russian military collapse between now and then is not out of the question. Moreover, sending hundreds of thousands of Russians to the front won’t address their supply and logistical problems, or the utterly inept leadership of Putin’s generals and commanders—not to mention Putin himself.

By forcing a referendum on Ukrainians held hostage in four regions—Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk, and Luhansk—Putin may seek to declare victory to salvage something of his disaster. No country should recognize these spurious votes.

No one wants the war to end more than the Ukrainians, who have been the innocent victims of Putin’s brutal campaign characterized by deliberate targeting of hospitals, schools, and apartment buildings, with clear evidence of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.

But the Ukrainians smell victory and sense the Russians forces are on the run. They are determined to regain control over all their territory, even parts seized the first time Russia invaded in 2014, including Crimea. Putin has made Ukrainians confident in their ability to prevail in this war and stiffened their opposition to any territorial concessions in exchange for an end to the fighting. The Ukrainians know that to exchange land (and population) for peace now would guarantee another war, whereas victory is the only path to true peace.

Putin appears to think that Ukraine won’t launch attacks on Russian forces on what Moscow, after the faux referenda, would claim as Russian territory, particularly after he hinted at the possible use of nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction. “If the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we will use all available means to protect Russia and our people—this is not a bluff,” he threatened last week.

But the Ukrainians have launched strikes against Crimea, which Russia also illegally annexed in 2014, and Russia hasn’t resorted to tactical nukes against Ukraine for that. He threatened the supply lines along which Western arms and other aid are flowing into Ukraine, but has done little to make good on those threats.

With the exception of energy cutoffs, virtually every threat of Putin’s against the West since February hasn’t materialized. Even if Putin were to order a launch of a tactical nuke, it’s far from certain that his generals—or, for that matter, the whole chain of command below them—would follow such a command from a clearly desperate leader.

The West shouldn’t cave to Putin’s threats nor cower in the face of the mobilization edict. The Ukrainians aren’t backing down, and they are the ones doing the fighting and dying every single day. We should continue to provide Ukraine with everything it needs to fight and win this war and continue to warn Putin and his military of the consequences if he were to use any weapons of mass destruction.

This is no time to go soft on Putin, look for an off-ramp for him, or pressure the Ukrainians to negotiate.

Instead, it’s a time, thanks to the heroism and bravery of the Ukrainians, to deliver Putin, Putinism, and authoritarianism writ large a massive blow. The Chinese are watching how we respond to this crisis as they weigh a possible invasion of Taiwan. The best way to avert that scenario is to do whatever we can to help the Ukrainians win by driving Russian occupying forces off of Ukrainian territory. The increasingly unhappy Russian people just might take care of the rest.

David J. Kramer

David J. Kramer, a former assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor in the George W. Bush administration, is executive director of the George W. Bush Institute and chairs the board of the Free Russia Foundation.